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The mother of all goddesses

books Updated: Oct 15, 2010 22:15 IST
Rima Hooja
Rima Hooja
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

From Ogress to Goddess — Hariti
Madhurika K. Maheshwari
IIRNS Publications
n R3,000 n pp 244

In a fascinating recounting of the story of Hariti, a child-devourer whom the Buddha brought to the path of Righteousness, and who then went on to become one of Buddhism’s — and India’s — foremost Mother Goddesses, Madhurika K. Maheshwari’s From Ogress to Goddess — Hariti — A Buddhist Deity focuses on a deity that once enjoyed more prominence in the Indian subcontinent and beyond than it does today. Maheshwari’s study is very readable and wide-ranging, with its focus being the erstwhile prominent deity.

According to early Buddhist tradition, Hariti the Yakshini (yakshas and yakshinis being divine beings with benevolent and malevolent aspects), was an ogress who also became the city of Rajgriha’s protector demi-goddess, changed her wicked propensity for devouring children after Gautama Buddha helped her understand that her anguish for her missing child was no different than the sorrow felt by the parents of children she had eaten. Following her repentance, the Buddha raised Hariti to a divine status, making her protector not just of children and expectant mothers, but also of the Buddhist Sangha and its stupas, viharas, monastery-structures, people and morals.

Hariti became the predominant Mother-Goddess in India from about circa 1st century BC to 1st century AD and retained her relevance over the centuries, often becoming incorporated with local sub-regional goddesses, and with goddesses called upon to protect children from disease, death and disaster. It may be noted that Hariti became not just a protective deity and fertility goddess — in common with other yakshinis in Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism — but she was also the consort of Panchika Kubera, king of the Yakshas and Lord of Wealth.

Maheshwari’s well-illustrated book provides a comprehensive look at the emergence of Hariti as a goddess and her rise to pre-eminence not just as the Great Yakshini, but also as a great Mother-Goddess in whom were syncreticised, merged or co-affiliated other female deities like the Iranian Ardoxsho, Jainism’s Bahuputrika and Brahmanical Hinduism’s Sri-Lakshmi, and mother-goddesses like Bhima Devi, Nana, Shashthi, Revati, Jara, Jyeshtha, and Sitala, to name a few.

The work also looks in detail at forms and practices of worshipping Hariti, especially — but not only — in the Buddhist Mahayana/ Sunyayana/ Vajrayana tradition. Maheshwari examines Hariti’s marginally changed appearances and names as the cult spread outside India and gained popularity in China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet and other Central Asian regions.

Besides describing Hariti’s iconography through the ages and across regions, Maheshwari dedicates a full chapter to the images of Hariti in gold, silver and clay. Both chapters, like other five, have copious colour and black-and-white photographs and line drawings.

A comprehensive bibliography is provided, along with a useful glossary and index, besides chapter-wise Endnotes (wrongly labelled as Footnotes, which I wish they had actually been), and eight pages of line drawings — in addition to the ones throughout the book — illustrating Hariti’s hairstyles, crowns, thrones, jewellery and so forth.

There are also numerous photographs, which help the reader understand the continuity and changing forms of the yakshini. Occasionally, information is repeated, though given the complicated story, it does not mar the reader’s enjoyment. This book brings home the changing popularity of religious cults and their appearance, disappearance, re-working and amalgamation with other cults.

The book can thus be seen as a valuable addition to the literature available on South Asian iconography and religious beliefs and one looks forward to the forthcoming companion-volume on Kubera that’s mentioned on the book’s inner flap.

Rima Hooja is an archaeologist, historian and writer